How Embattled LA DIY Venue The Smell Is Using VR to Preserve Its Legacy

Now facing demolition, the legendary venue will live on thanks to a virtual night out created by director alums Gil Kenan and Vice Cooler. Stream the 360 video and download the VR tour for free now.
January 13, 2017, 8:46pm

As the future of DIY spaces across the country remains uncertain, one embattled LA venue is turning to VR technology to help keep its legacy alive long after its walls may fall.

Legendary space The Smell, which helped launch acts like No Age and HEALTH, and which served as one of the city's few all-ages venues, received a demolition notice in May to make way for new developments in the city's gentrifying downtown. It's one of several of LA's handful of DIY venues to face closure over the past year.

Though exactly when The Smell's Skid Row-adjacent building will be demolished remains unclear, founder Jim Smith and generations of venue alumni have continued to raise funds and drum up support for Smith to permanently relocate The Smell to a new home.

Now, as the venue celebrates 19 years at its downtown location this month, alums and filmmakers Gil Keenan ( Monster House, Poltergeist) and Vice Cooler (Feist/Mastodon's html5 video, Deerhoof's "Exit Only" with Michael Shannon) have found another way to help keep The Smell alive. The pair, in collaboration with Butcher Bird Studios, have teamed up with generations of Smell volunteers to create a virtual reality tour of the scuzzy, cavernous space, complete with live performances, moshing crowds, and a chance to take the stage yourself.

The piece, shot with a custom 360 video camera rig built from Lumix GH4s, takes the viewer through The Smell's various rooms and the scenarios they offered, from a battle circle with Alpha MC + VerBS, to a bathroom electronic set with David Scott Stone, to playing on stage with up-and-comers Clit Kat, to moshing outside to No Age. It's vibrant, surreal, and totally immersive, a glimpse of something that the loss of its graffitied walls can't take away.

The Smell debuted the project, complete with VR headsets and an Oculus Rift, at LA gallery space 356 Mission this week, and today releases a free download and stream of the VR film.

We spoke with Cooler, who has been playing at volunteering at The Smell for more than half his life, about how the project came to be, how VR fits the nature of DIY, and the potential the medium has for keeping such spaces alive in the future.

Download the film, best experienced with a VR headset, here. Read on and stream the 360 video below.

NOISEY: What's your history with The Smell, and how did the project come about?
Vice Cooler: I have had so many great experiences at The Smell, both as a performer and as an audience member. I have been playing and volunteering there for more than half my life. The venue offers a supportive environment which helped developed both my creative and social skills.

On the night The Smell received its demolition notice, a group of us went to the venue to see how we could help. David Scott Stone mentioned to me how cool it would be to do some sorta virtual reality thing there. He might have been joking at the time, but I thought it was a great idea. I thought about it over night and decided that it had to be done. I reached out for help through another fellow Smell alumni and director, Gil Kenan. Thankfully he was down to collaborate and brought in a lot of great ideas.

Why VR? What do you think it captures that traditional video doesn't?
I have always liked using new technologies in film. I find it enjoyable to figure out how to incorporate them in a visual project in order to enhance the viewer's experience. For example, when I directed Feist and Mastodon's "A Commotion", which was an HTML5/ interactive video, it was really cool to make something that will be experienced by the viewer differently every time. In this particular scenario with The Smell- the imminent threat of losing a building, or venue, or community - gave an urgency to do something to preserve the spirit of the venue. It was great to have an opportunity to capture a moment in time that people will always be able to participate in through an interactive video. In this aspect it is completely different from the average film.

What was the shooting process like? What were the challenges?
I liked the challenge of its uncertainty. We did almost every shoot with one take, absent of a monitor system or anywhere to hide behind. We wondered if the lights or sound equipment being shown in the video would be a problem—since we usually mask them and they aren't a normal part of the space, but we came to the conclusion that it was ok. We weren't trying to make a perfect video - we were trying to capture what the venue brings out in musicians and their audience. Musicians often perform there without any frills. They are working creatively and as efficiently as they can and the sound that is produced is energetic and unpolished. The Smell has never had proper lighting. The venue has never been acoustically treated.  However, those things don't matter when you see something amazing. Hence we felt very confident keeping any filming equipment in the final edit as long as we got the energy of the room right.

The shooting process all happened in one night and we ran it really similar to an actual show there. Gil and I really wanted the camera to be an observer with the crowd rather than people feeling the need to act out and acknowledge it.

How did you choose the acts and scenes featured? Who are the kids in the video?
The goal was to have an accurate representation of the different people who have made The Smell what it is. We had multiple generations of volunteers, audience members, and performers. We worked closely with the owner, Jim Smith, to pick out bands that he felt represented the past two decades of the space.

Gil and I really respect the space and wanted to do it justice. Hopefully this experience can convey what a night at The Smell actually feels like. We knew it was important to incorporate every room. Music was the tool to keeping that fun. We thought about shows there where bands weren't playing on the stage and wanted to honor that. A great example would be a show where I saw Bomb Squad (ex-Mika Miko) perform on top of the bathroom.

Are there any other venues have done or are doing anything similar to capture their spaces? Did you have a reference point for doing something like this?
As a child I had a lot of bootlegs from this LA venue called the Jabberjaw. My first band really wanted to play there but it was closed by the time we were old enough to tour. The building is now a church. Since moving to LA I have visited the structure, for fun, in an attempt to place a visual for these amazing shows I have heard and read about.

I know The Smell has important memories for a lot of people. I hope this piece reflects that while emphasizing the importance of DIY venues and the communities that make them.

I like the idea of using VR to preserve the space, because it captures something that has little to do with its physicality. How do you see VR fitting in with the ethos of a place like The Smell? As these spaces are increasingly being challenged or threatened, what kind of potential do you see in projects like this?
The whole project was done by volunteers. This is a testament to the influence The Smell has had on people. I hope this video can be something to influence other people; to feel ok getting friends organized to help make something that will benefit others within their own communities.

Andrea Domanick is Noisey's West Coast Editor. Follow her on Twitter